Sunday, 17 June 2007

Chapter 11: Northern Cape


And the springboks bounced, and fluttered, and flew, Hooping their spines on the gaunt Karoo.

- From “The Flaming Terrapin” by Roy Campbell, South African poet (1901-1957)


The Khomani San people of the Northern Cape are stumbling under the complexities of owning thousands of hectares of land they cannot manage. Their current travails are about land they received under a claim they made for six farms totaling 36 000 ha in 1999 near the Kgalagadi National Park in the Northern Cape. In addition to this, they were given another 25 000 ha of the park itself in 2002. During the handing over ceremony, Minister of Land Affairs Ms. Thoko Didiza hailed the second handover of land to the Khomani San people as an example of how a community “can claim its heritage”.(1)

What makes these remarks so astonishing is that the six farms originally given to the San people were already on the ropes at the time Minister Didiza made her remarks committing a further 25 000 ha to them. According to a February 2002 press report(2), the first property was already on its last legs. It had been handed over in a blaze of publicity on Human Rights Day, March 21, 1999 by President Thabo Mbeki. Just two years later, the farm infrastructure had collapsed, the community had no motorized transport and virtually no livestock, most of the game had been either sold or poached, the remaining game was dying of thirst because the water pumps were broken, leading community members were occupying houses earmarked for tourism initiatives, and the community had split.(3) Seventy five percent of the farms’ infrastructure had disappeared.

Did neither Ms. Didiza nor the State President check up on the San people after the handover party was over? In June 2003, Jan van der Westhuizen, chairman of the Khomani San Communal Property Association (CPA), said the farms were going “from bad to worse because we don’t have the money.”(4) Members of two previous committees had been dismissed for mismanagement and corruption, a story now endemic throughout South Africa. For four years, nothing happened on the six original land claim farms which cost the taxpayers R8 million. They have not generated any income. “There is no water, there is no money to buy diesel”, says van der Westhuizen. “We live off the pensions of the elderly”.(5) Each family gets a litre of water a day because water and electricity to the farms were cut off in September 2002, at the same time Minister Didiza was handing the community another 25 000 hectares.

Phillipa Holden, an ecologist working with the San, said it was incomprehensible that the government would hand over property worth millions of rands to a community “but fail to ensure they have the support and training to run the farms”. (6) What is even more incomprehensible is the government’s attitude to this scandal. Mr. Sugar Ramakarene, Free State and Northern Cape commissioner of land affairs said the government knew about the problems “but the point of land redistribution is to give the community their land, not run it for them” .(7)

He then asked for a “workable business plan”, this after already handing over 61 000 ha. There is a trust fund of R2.7 million which the tribe cannot touch because this money is earmarked for even more land for these hapless people! Mr. Ramarakane criticized the previous CPA because they used the interest from the fund “for their own personal expenses. The Khomani San have to be accountable for their own fate”. Unfortunately, this catastrophic situation was precipitated with taxpayers’ money.

Despite the fact that in 2002, a court ordered the government to appoint a manager, this has not happened. (Who else in the country can ignore a court order with impunity?) It would appear that, here too, this community has been set up for failure. Said Ms. Holden: “Someone is needed to help the community get on their feet and train them to self-sustainability. We write letters, hundreds of e-mails, make numerous phone calls. All we have is someone from Land Affairs saying they will look into it”.(8) Mr. Ramarakane says the government is looking into establishing a partnership between the community and business people. “But in the end it is not an ideal situation for us to give people land, but then run it ourselves”.

This of course begs the question – why hand over 61 000 ha of land when it is almost a foregone conclusion that the recipients will fail? Surely the Khomani San deserve better than that? And surely the taxpayers should also expect a better deal! A development consultant said in June 2003 that there were only 12 gemsbok and 60 springbok left on one farm which once held game worth millions of rand.(9) What leaves a bitter taste is the press coverage surrounding most of these handovers. Indeed, it is the glowing newspaper articles and the TV clips which alerted us in the first place to investigate these changes of ownership. Without exception, the handovers are treated as joyous affairs, with the San bushmen “getting their land at last” (10) The tragedy is that the Department of Land Affairs apparently did not follow up on the progress of these hapless people after they received their first batch of farms. This is evidenced by the handing over of a second group of farms at the very moment the water and electricity supply was being cut to the first farms they received!

The Paprika Project

We were informed on good authority that close to one million hectares of land has been transferred in the Northern Cape area. “Only a few projects can be described as successful”, said a dispirited member of organized agriculture who lives in the area. “We want these people to succeed, but they don’t. It’s a tragedy,” he said. He told us of the paprika project, where more than R50 million was pumped into setting up a new 550ha paprika farming scheme near Goodhouse in the baking Northern Cape, arguably the hottest place in South Africa. “Temperatures reach up to 50C in summer in Goodhouse, while for paprika to be grown successfully, the temperature must not be warmer than 32C”, said a farmer in the know.

This project is not a viable proposition, he declared. The market value of paprika is R7,50 per kilo. But labor costs to harvest one kilo of paprika are already R4,00. Paprika farming is very labor intensive, and workers are not paid per kilogram but are paid a salary no matter how much they harvest. In early March 2003, it was reported the 55 small-scale farmers who are part of this scheme had signed a production contract with the project managers. “The beneficiary shareholding is set to ignite an immediate change in their fortunes”, said Mr. Thabo Mothibi, Western Cape Land Reform, Agriculture, Environment and Conservation spokesman at the time.(11)

However, just eight months later, another picture has emerged. The “immediate change in their fortunes” has not been ignited, and will possibly remain just a dream. In an article published on 5 December 2003, it was reported that the multi-million rand Paprika Project almost collapsed “earlier this year”. (12) Millions of rands worth of paprika was not harvested. Mr. Thulani Binase, chairman of the Northern Cape standing committee on public accounts said the paprika development was supposed to create work opportunities for people in the province. “This did not happen. Training programs must be implemented in order that the people become involved”.(13)

Other projects upon which the committee expressed its misgivings were the Wavelength Steel Project and the Kalahari Kid goat project which had as yet not produced a profit. During a visit in November 2003, the committee found that the steel project was not even in operation.

The committee also decried the fact that the large number of overseas visits conducted by the department’s personnel had not borne fruit. “Various representative delegations went to China and have not yet informed the committee of the results of their visits.”

There were serious recriminations about the paprika project. Mr. Binase complained that the people who developed these projects “from outside” brought nothing to the table. In the March press report, Haymake Investment, Gili Greenworld, Variety Holdings and Nocal Ltd. were mentioned as the project managers. The provincial government set up the paprika scheme next to the Orange River. No impact study was apparently concluded, said the local farmer, otherwise they wouldn’t have created this project in this area. Questions as to the role of the consultants are being asked locally. The processing factory is 300km away in Springbok, and if not enough paprika is harvested, then transporting it is not an economic proposition. The 55 participants from the coloured community, received 10ha each. The professional consultants were “doing their best”, said our farmer. But the project was stopped in the recent past for three months, and this resulted in the crop loss of some few million rands. Fortunately, the project is on course again, but for how long?

The advice of the consultants is often not taken, we heard, and the owners – the community – “don’t want to farm - they want the money without the hard work”, said a source. “The only thing that will work here is a joint venture (with professionals) or a one-manager arrangement. Too many people as “owners” is a recipe for disaster, he said. He added that the area never before produced paprika, and that the Department of Agriculture had conducted a study on paprika growing near Upington and had concluded it would not work there. Goodhouse is hotter than Upington, so why the R50 million development when there is only a slim chance of success?


The origins of the land claim against the Riemvasmaak area of the Northern Cape are an interesting legal conundrum. One hundred and forty kilometers west of Upington, one of the hottest places in South Africa, live 2 400 Namas on 14 000 ha of hilly desert wilderness. These Namas were originally from the old South West Africa (now Namibia) and during the 1914 war, they fled across the South African/SWA border and were given refuge and helped to settle in the area by the Roman Catholic church.

Under the old National Party government policy, the community was returned to the then South West Africa. After the present government came to power, they claimed the land “where their forefathers were buried” and some of the community returned to Riemvasmaak in South Africa after the claim was granted. Others remained behind in Namibia. (Land claims based on graves is a moot point, and is contested by many farmers in the courts. As in the Botshabelo case near Middelburg, Mpumalanga, claims based on forefathers being given refuge at churches or missions would also not appear to be legal.)

Riemvasmaak has turned into something of a disaster. It was one of the first land restitution projects in South Africa. There is no electricity or running water for the community, and the ground is full of shale and stones. “It is not good enough to simply dump people on a piece of ground and then hope they can look after themselves”, said a farmer near Upington. At the end of 2003, the community was struggling to establish a tourist operation - a four-by-four hiking route and other related schemes. There is no irrigation at Riemvasmaak, and development is very slow. A new housing scheme has been built but there is no self-development, no spring of initiative, no investment of note. This project is hardly the shining light of the government’s land reform initiative.


The Nama people of Richtersveld, a barren piece of land along the southern banks of the Orange River in the Northern Cape, were the beneficiaries of a recent Constitutional Court decision confirming a Supreme Court of Appeal ruling to return their land from which they were removed in the 1920s, when alluvial diamond mining commenced. The land is currently held in trust by the South African government and is leased by mining companies Alexkor and Transhex, who pay a small royalty to the Richtersveld community. This land claim was the first brought under aboriginal title rights in South Africa, and the ruling made history because, inter alia, the government sided with the mining company Alexkor and not the claimants.

Several elderly community members testified that their historic links to the land went back 200 years when the Nama occupied the land as semi-nomadic pastoralists. Their land claim was originally rejected by the Land Claims Court - the SA government and the mining company Alexkor entered a defence against the claim. The case involved the key issue of the validity of aboriginal title, and set a precedent in land claims applications in South Africa where “aboriginal” title claims are unusual. The Richtersvelders’ claim was supported by the South African Legal Resources Centre, and the amount of their legal compensation for diamond sales, if they should eventually win, would be considerable.

The government for its part did not want to lose the lucrative benefits of its ownership of Richtersveld and its minerals. The Constitutional Court’s ruling that the Richtersvelders have a right to the land they are claiming has implications for property rights in South Africa. It also reveals something else: if the Richtersvelders have “aboriginal title”, then who else is “aboriginal” in South Africa? Or is no one else “aboriginal” except the San, the Khoi and the Bushmen? This implies that everyone else living in the country is, in one way or another, a settler. While the government is prepared to dish out private farm land to claimants on the flimsiest of bases at times, they appointed rafts of expensive lawyers to fight the Richtersvelders tooth and nail – because diamonds are clearly Ms Thoko Didiza’s best friend!

The Goats Milk Project

Four years ago, this project was set up near Victoria West at a cost of around R2 million. The plan was to make cheese from free-range goats belonging to local residents, and the dairy production company Simonsberg was called in to provide training for the project. Cheese-making equipment was provided and forage was purchased for the goats. However, some participants forgot to bring their goats in at the weekend, and many of the animals were mishandled. They were badly penned, and in the end, the SPCA was brought in to remove the last two remaining goats which were in a parlous state. Naturally this cooperative venture to assist fifty people collapsed, and in 2003 the equipment was sold under auction.


In June 2003, “after almost ten years of struggle” (14), the Griqua people of Bucklands near Kimberley received nine farms under South Africa’s land redistribution policy. This prime land is on a spot at the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers. “The 13 000 ha have great development potential for irrigated agriculture. It is virgin soil and is reputed to be some of the highest yielding farmland in the country”.(15)

Most of the land is covered with thorn trees and shrubs, but there are reputed to be many diamond deposits on the farms. A further 12 farms valued at R41 million by the Department of Land Affairs in 2001, are due to be handed over under the same claim. There is however resistance from some of the present owners because the farms carry expensive agricultural structures and contain diamond deposits. Further, and perhaps more importantly, two owners dispute the validity of the claims. Schalk Human is one of the farmers challenging the claim against his property. He said he didn’t even know there was a claim on his land until the local claims commissioner came to his farm. Louis Wilken also contests the claim. The land has been under white ownership since 1876, both farmers say, and the restitution law commences from 1913 and onwards. Human and Wilken say the local land claims commissioner warned them that if they resisted the commission’s ruling, they might be taken to court and their land could be expropriated. (16)

In another twist, a local farmer says the land already given to the Griquas - Bucklands - was originally state land, and the claim on that could be invalid as well. However, the farmers who occupied it didn’t contest the claim, and because it was state land, the claim was not argued in court.

A land claimant kisses the soil of Bucklands – nine farms at the congruence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers which were handed over. In addition to the farms, the claimants also received rights to diamond deposits in the area. Local farmers, who contested the claim on the grounds that the land has been under white ownership since 1876, while the restitution law commences only from 1913, were warned by the local land claims commissioner that if they continued to resist, they might be taken to court and more land expropriated.

William Wellen, chairman of the Bucklands Community Property Association (CPA) has big plans for the farms. He wants to build the Nelson Mandela Holiday Resort. The community is also hoping diamond mining companies will come in. However, it seems there is no fixed business plan for agriculture or any other project, and it cannot be ascertained whether working capital was given to the community. A report in July 2003, just one month after the handover, tells of a split in the community of 3 500.(17) They want to obtain mining permits before giving access to their land. At the other end of the spectrum, mining companies both in South Africa and overseas are dealing directly with the government to try and obtain permits to mine the land.

So far, the Bucklands people have not received their permit. They cannot fill in the application forms, and they say no one in the government will help them. In desperation, the community has turned to lawyers to exert pressure on the Department of Minerals and Energy Affairs to help them. But the department says it doesn’t know what the community is talking about.(18)

The community wants a moratorium on any permits issued until it can obtain help with its application. Its previous application was rejected for technical reasons. The community says it wants to form a mining company and then enter into a joint venture, but the community wants to keep the majority of the shares. This is of course a problem, for obvious reasons. In the meantime, the community has hired a lawyer, and they need help. They have met neighbouring farmers who want to help, but the figure being tossed around to develop the land is R40 million to start.(19)

Groot Vlakfontein/Metsimatshwe

Another claim we will be watching is the 10 000 ha handed over to the Metsimatshwe community at Groot Vlakfontein near Kuruman in the Northern Cape. The five farmers who sold did not contest the claim and “were happy with their price”, we were told. However, the history of the claim reveals why perhaps the farmers were happy to go. The community’s first claim in 1996 was rejected. In 2001, some of them simply camped on Groot Vlakfontein. They were arrested and charged with trespassing.(20) They again pitched tents on the land, and were again arrested. The claimants were supported by the National Land Claims Committee, an activist NGO.

This pressurized both the DLA and the farmers, and a compromise was reached “in the spirit of reconciliation” said one of the farmers. The properties are excellent cattle farms, there is enough underground drinking water, with first rate housing and outbuildings. What we must watch now is whether the Metsimatshwe community can make a go of their new farms, and whether they will be assisted in their endeavours by the Department of Land Affairs. All of this remains to be seen. Good cattle farming land in the area goes for around R500 per ha. We were unable to ascertain the price paid for the farms but it is estimated to be in realm of R5 million.


Two land claims in the Northern Cape involve considerable diamond deposits. The small Tswana community headed by brothers Abel and Joseph Pholoholo are angry because the claim they lodged in 1995 has been gazetted, but they say they sit on the sidelines and watch diamonds being taken out of their ground, and can do nothing.(21) The ground belongs to a British company and they have lodged their rejection of the claim. Abel Pholoholo says there has been much hedging over their claim because of the overseas company’s involvement.

In another case, there appears to be government involvement in a claim at Schmidtsdrift, about 80 km west of Kimberley. A black economic empowerment company New Diamond Corporation (NDC) was accused by the claimants of acquiring the land “illegally” (22) Claimants say “political forces” have prevented the community from obtaining their mineral rights from the NDC. In December 2002, lawyers representing 1 200 people who form part of the Schmidtsdrift community wrote to the Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs about the problem, and four months later they hadn’t received a reply.

The NDC holds 80% share in the Schmidtsdrift Mining Company and the community 20%. The dealings between the mining company, the NDC and the community are something of a cat’s nest. Five businessmen involved in African Renaissance Holdings, one of the companies within the NDC group, are reportedly part of President Thabo Mbeki’s Consultative Council.(23)

Without the diamonds, of course, Schmidtsdrift would hardly be on the map. A rocky dry place, most of its inhabitants do not have access to health facilities, there is no high school, and the majority of the people are unemployed and illiterate. The people are waiting to see what benefits they will receive from the mine.

Something that works

South Africa’s biggest grape exporter told us his partnership with local people in the Kubus Fruit Farms in the Northern Cape is working. Piet Karsten says the only deal that works as far as land reform is concerned is a joint-venture operation where inexperienced potential farmers can be brought into farming through a learning process. Dumping people on land and expecting them to farm with no support is a recipe for failure. His company Karsten Boerdery has entered into an agreement with the Industrial Development Corporation and a black empowerment group to produce grapes for export. The project is predicted to bring in much needed foreign currency and create thousands of jobs. At its peak, 1,9 million cartons of table grapes will be exported to Europe from the 500 ha development, predicts Mr. Karsten. This deal is the IDC’s largest empowerment investment into the agricultural sector to date.

Karsten Boerdery will control the operation and run the farms. The farm workers will be part of the project. Piet Karsten told us his group had been empowering their employees for years. His group already has 300 black shareholders. The Kubus project is not part of the government’s land reform program, but is an example of cooperation within the agricultural community, Karsten says. Observers have faith in Piet Karsten’s business ability, experience and skills. As long as his company continues to run this huge operation, everyone will benefit. .

Despite the success of groups like the Karsten Boerdery, poverty lurks on the fringes of communities in the Northern Cape, South Africa’s most barren and harsh landscape. Farming here is the most difficult in South Africa, all the more reason for circumspection in deciding whether a land claim will be of benefit not only to the claimants but to the whole of South Africa.

A harsh terrain needs a highly skilled operation to be viable, something outside the parameters of South Africa’s aboriginal people who populate this desolate area. A new look at how to assist them is needed.

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